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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 23, 2001

Survivor revisits Pearl Harbor

Hear an audio clip of Claude Ortiz recalling the first frightening minutes of the Japanese attack the morning of Dec. 7, 1941

By Scott Ishikawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

With the exception of his family, Pearl Harbor survivor Claude Ortiz has kept the harrowing details of the Pearl Harbor attack to himself for the last 60 years.

Claude Ortiz, 79, was repairing the USS Shaw when Japanese bombs hit. For years, no one but family heard the harrowing details.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Maybe the memories were so bad, my mind shut it out," said the 79-year-old, who never publicly discussed his experiences as a Navy shipyard worker on Dec. 7, 1941. "Maybe I need to tell the stories now because a lot of my co-workers are gone. They were the heroes. They risked their lives to save others."

A series of events are planned beginning Dec. 1 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the attack, such as a conference sponsored by the National Park Service and commemorations Dec. 7 at the USS Arizona Memorial and National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

The focus of many of the events will be on survivors, military and civilian.

Ortiz, probably known more as the subject of the book "The Aloha Cowboy," about his paniolo experiences, was working aboard the destroyer USS Shaw when it was struck by a Japanese bomb. The fireball rising from the Shaw is one of the better-known images captured during the Pearl Harbor attack.

Ortiz began working at the shipyard in 1940, assigned to heat up rivets for other "yardbirds."

Although it was a Sunday, Ortiz and co-workers were repairing the Shaw in a floating drydock before it was to head out to sea the next day.

"We started work on the ship's laundry room at 7 a.m. The night before, we had our annual workers' lu'au, and boss reminded us we had to work the next day," Ortiz said.

He was chatting with the ship's deck officer when they noticed planes flying from the direction of 'Aiea.

"I told him, 'That looks like Japanese planes,' " Ortiz recalled. "And he said, '... it's just maneuvers.' Then all of a sudden, hell breaks loose."

Ortiz watched from a distance as the USS Arizona exploded, killing 1,177 of its crew. Then the USS Oklahoma capsized after numerous torpedo hits.

At 9 a.m., the Shaw took three direct hits that ignited its forward magazines. The blast split the ship in two, taking off the bow.

"I was on the rear of the ship when it happened. The bombs hit forward of the No. 1 gun turret and listed to one side," Ortiz said. "All the guys rolled on the side and hung on to whatever we could hang on ... somehow we got to the deck of the drydock and ran towards shore.

"If I wasn't standing behind the ship's superstructure, I wouldn't be here today."

Hiding behind some dock fixtures, Ortiz called to his friend running for cover.

"I was yelling, 'Freddy! Freddy! Over here!' Suddenly there was a dust flying everywhere ... and then he fell. He called out, 'I got cramps!' and he started crying."

Ortiz ran to his co-worker and found his legs had been shot away by the strafing Japanese plane.

"They were shot to hell," he said. "I think they took him to the old Tripler Hospital."

By nightfall Ortiz and six others were sent to help rescue men trapped in the capsized Oklahoma, who were heard tapping against the ship's hull.

"So the first hole, they used a blowtorch, and they found six or seven trapped guys dead from the fumes," he said. "So they called us to use pneumatic drills to make holes from the next deck down, and chip away the rest.

"The holes were only 18 inches in diameter, but all of the trapped men were trying to get through at once," he said.

After sleeping overnight at the shipyard, the men were assigned the rest of the week to gather bodies from the oily harbor waters.

"We put hundreds of bodies on the boats and took them back to the machine shop," he said. "The Navy trucks took them to Red Hill and buried them in a mass grave until Punchbowl was opened.

"We couldn't go home for 14 days, we slept at the shop, but there were nights I couldn't eat or sleep."

Ortiz spent the next two years repairing American ships, including a new bow for the USS Shaw.

"I thought the ship was 'finished,' but we built a new bow and she went out to sea," he said. "We worked 14, 15 hours a day to make the most of the daylight. We couldn't work at night because of the blackouts."

Ortiz later volunteered for the Navy and served until the end of the war. He went back to the Pearl Harbor shipyard, where he worked until 1961.

He now lives with his wife, Delilah Mae, and family in Pupukea.

Watching the Sept. 11 attacks on television revived horrible images of the attack 60 years earlier, Ortiz said.

"When we were attacked at Pearl, I thought it was the end of the world. Some people were making the sign of the cross, some guys kneeled down to pray.

"But you know, tomorrow did come after the attack. After all that happened, we're still here."

Information on anniversary events sponsored by the National Park Service are available by calling 422-2771 or by visiting the Arizona Memorial Museum Association's Web site.

Reach Scott Ishikawa at 535-2429 or sishikawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.